Pause the film there, please.
Take a look at this bicycle in the air, front tire at 6 o’clock and back tire at 11 o’clock. And note the 8-year-old rider — certainly not wearing a helmet, because it’s 1978 — his hands gripping the handlebars, and his eyes rolled back in his head because it’s just dawned on him that he is about to flip over. Well, that’s me just before I make a devastatingly impressive impression into the ground while doing an impression of Evel Knievel.
I think of Evel each spring when motorcycles come out of hibernation and roar past me as I walk down Cundy’s Harbor Road. I first saw the legendary stuntman on ABC’s Saturday afternoon program “Wide World of Sports.” He had gained national notoriety for jumping his star-spangled motorcycle over cars and trucks and buses. Often he was successful, but what I most remember are the crashes, the “agonies of defeat,” especially watched over and over again in slow motion.
Evel had a bad habit of falling off his motorcycle when he hit the landing ramp. Cruising around 100 mph, Knievel’s body, arms, head and legs would do a wildly wonderful dance whose moves included bouncing off his motorcycle, bouncing and bouncing off the landing ramp, and then bouncing and bouncing down the landing strip, until finally bouncing into a protective crash barrier that brought the whole awful-to-watch-but-can’t-look-away spectacle to a whirling, bouncing rest.
To his credit, Evel never died from all that bouncing but walked away, or was carted away, into a waiting ambulance and brought to the hospital, where, after many months of recovery, he would again show up on “Wide World of Sports” eager to do some more bouncing.
I was so impressed with Evel that I pretended to be like him. Not having a way to throw my body into a great, uncontrollable speed, I’d reproduce the slow-motion video and roll around the front lawn and bounce like he did while adding some other maneuvers, like somersaulting, hurtling, flailing and careening. That was all harmless fun until one day, I spied my Matchbox cars not doing anything and decided they needed to be jumped over.
Here are the ingredients you need to be like Evel Knievel: a board for a ramp, a large rock, some toy cars, a bike, and complete ignorance that anything could go wrong.
After I made the ramp with my board and rock, I laid out the 10 or so cars in a line and then did what Evel did in preparation for a big jump. This required making all kinds of revving sounds, riding past the ramp several times to build audience suspense, and then getting my bike and me in a position far enough away from the jump so that I could build enough speed to clear all those cars and land safely on the other side.
Let’s roll the film again — and in honor of Evel, please run it in slow motion.
It’s never good when, during the course of a jump, you find your rear tire has now become your front tire and you are looking at the world upside down. Unlike Evel, I did not do a lot of bouncing. I bounced once, my bike landed on top of me, and then I did a lot of gasping.
This was my introduction to getting the wind knocked out of you and the ways the body can rebel against bouncing.
Gregory Greenleaf lives in Harpswell and teaches high school English. He ascribes, prescribes and subscribes to many old-fashioned ideas, but especially Charles Dickens’ observation that “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”